Big Brother's Eyes

Video cameras in public places offer increased security in some Baltimore locations.

by / July 31, 1999
Reprinted with permission from TechBeat

The use of surveillance cameras is quickly becoming one of the nation's most popular and economical ways of using technology to fight crime. Baltimore, for example, focused 16 cameras on what once was considered a high-crime area. This grant-funded program cost less than $60,000, and after three years, it is credited with a 34-percent decrease in crime in that particular area.

Cameras are popping up everywhere: toll plazas, bus stations, tunnels, traffic intersections, bridges, public parks, offices, apartment buildings and government offices. In some cases, they are installed by the local police department. In other cases, the cameras are a result of a partnership between community groups, the city and local law enforcement agencies.

But despite the proliferation of surveillance cameras, what has yet to be determined is how police agencies can make the best use of public-surveillance and video technologies.

Candid About Cameras

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in a project that partners the agency's Office of Science and Technology (OS&T) with its United Kingdom counterpart, the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) of the Home Office, is studying how to most effectively access and analyze the information collected on the video surveillance tapes. According to Ray Downs, deputy director of OS&T's Research and Technology Development Division, PSDB, like NIJ, sets standards, tests equipment and fosters technology development for police and corrections agencies. A memorandum of understanding, signed by NIJ and PSDB, is providing a mechanism for the offices to work together on projects of common interest.

"They use video surveillance a lot in England, probably more than anywhere else in the world," Downs said. "Our goal is to get a better understanding of how police use videotapes. We'll be doing a survey to find out how often police use them, in what manner and how effective they are as a source of evidence."

An adjunct to the survey will be to ascertain the current state of the art of videotape analysis equipment. "We're learning more about the whole field in general," Downs said. "It's an area that is booming. Equipment quality is going up and prices are going down, just like a lot of other technology. So it's likely there will be an expanded use of this technology."

NIJ and PSDB will survey their respective industries and research communities in their countries and elsewhere, compare notes and then determine what they can do to help their law enforcement constituencies get the most benefit from video surveillance, according to Downs.

Little Debate

Thus far, debate over surveillance cameras is rare, for several reasons. Downs said that most people are accustomed to being filmed at automatic teller machines, and therefore may not find surveillance surprising or intrusive. Many people also believe public surveillance is the price they must pay for a safer community. Educating the public about the cameras in the early stages of a video-surveillance program has been another factor in encouraging public acceptance.

This is not to say that protests are nonexistent. While many critics concede that the cameras are useful crime-fighting tools, they say they fear unscrupulous camera owners could use them to intrude on citizens' privacy.

Baltimore, in partnership with its business community, circumvented many problems by implementing safeguards against the misuse of the system and the information gleaned from it by mounting the cameras where everyone can see them. "Our cameras are not covert," said Frank Russo, director of public safety of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., and a retired Baltimore police officer. "They are obvious, which is part of the reason public support has been so overwhelming. We haven't tried to hide anything."

According to Russo, the black-and-white cameras used in Baltimore are fixed in place. They cannot pan, tilt or zoom. The tapes are held unreviewed for 96 hours and are reused unless a crime is reported. The cameras have captured shootings and help police control the weekly "car show," a Friday- and Saturday-night gathering of 4,000 to 5,000 people. They also have cut down on shoplifting from the stores in the area. And merchants report increased sales. "Our objective was not necessarily to fight crime, but to make people feel safer. Our goal was to make the area a more inviting place to be. We feel like we've succeeded in that," Russo said.

International Slant

Video surveillance cameras also are employed at the federal level. The U.S. Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service uses them to monitor coastal waters. The video system can zoom in on specific vessels for identification. The service eventually hopes to create a central database that will catalog and track all ships traveling along the U.S. coast.

For more information about the National Institute of Justice's video camera surveillance project or to provide input for the survey, contact Tom Coty, project manager, at 202/514-7683. For more information about the United Kingdom's Police Scientific Development Branch of the Home Office, contact Jim Aldridge at 44-1727-816240.


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